They’re Not All Bad

Distractions are a necessary part of existence; sometimes a good thing, sometimes not. Distractions within the animal kingdom can be fatal; lack of awareness of predators while focused on munching grass can end badly, and for us human animals, so can driving while texting. Still, distractions can also keep us from terminal angst, and there are plenty of opportunities for angst these days. Using the 24/7 “news” programs as a distraction strikes me as counterproductive, with that seemingly common human attraction to the sensational, the more horrific the better. There is an abundance of it, and what used to be a dinner meal has now become a smorgasbord upon which to feast for the entirety of our waking hours. God knows an alternative would be preferable, and it turns out we have a lot of options. Sports offer refuge from the noise, whether it’s playing or watching. Even golf. For me, it’s music, or hiking, or penning the occasional thought bubble disguised as a blog. The list is virtually endless, but whatever the item on the menu, distractions keep us from thinking about something else.

Some distractions are more life affirming than others. Associations, organizations, and societies can be religions in their own right, often focused on improving the human condition; some exist purely to obfuscate and deflect, with the clear goal of maintaining power or wealth. We are encouraged to take a break from the noise through meditation or prayer, clearing the mind as best we can so the brain can breathe and connect to the illusive “universal mind.” Some activities can be meditative, things like gardening, writing, music, running, hiking, or an infinite selection of hobbies. Or the aforementioned golf. I played nine holes of golf in the mid 1960s; I don’t recall it being that relaxing, but I can accept that it’s a possibility. In any case, focusing thoughts and actions on activities that serve the Greater Good or, in the words of the medical profession, “do no harm,” can be salve for experiencing a world that — if one spends more than thirty minutes listening to the news — seems to be falling apart at the seams. 

There is, however, a need for balance, as in all matters of humankind. Distractions can be debilitating for a society — democratic or otherwise — when the darker side of humans poses an existential threat to the entire planet. I am, of course, talking about climate change. The warming of the planet is poised to exacerbate the problems already in view — drought, fires, heat waves, extreme weather, and immigration, to name a few — and to alter life as we know it. There is an endless list of tools to distract us, from entertainment to social media (read: marketing) to 24/7 “news.” But to be distracted to the point of being numb can only accelerate the damage. It would benefit us to develop a healthy balance between positive distractions (for mental health) and an awareness of both the problems we face and their solutions.

Solutions do, in fact, exist, but they are compelling us to confront big players. The neon elephant in the room is the fossil fuel industry; the burning of fossil fuels is the single most damaging cause of the climate perils we are experiencing, and that will persist for generations. It will take action from the top down (government and industry), and from the bottom up (personal and local communities), to change the trajectory we’re on. Those actions are occurring with varying degrees of success. The remarkable growth of clean energy is a good sign, as is the surge of production of electric vehicles. And, if used to “do no harm,” AI may accelerate solutions; the operative word there is “may.”

There is a piece from a recent issue of The New Yorker (11/13/23), referring to the horrific crisis in the Middle East, but applicable in a broader context: “Despair is not an option.” Despair brings plenty of individuals who would exploit despair to their advantage, so it would behoove us to replace it with another activity, which most often involves using whatever talents or motivations we have to help other human beings. Because, when it really comes down to it, we want and need human contact, and there are ample opportunities to find it.